Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

Mother Nature v. idealized machines
     fluids, fluidity, and contemporary ecopoetry by American women

ABSTRACT    Environmental crisis, including in oceans and other waterways where far more animals have gone extinct than on land and where challenging problems exist such as water pollution, rise in water temperature and in sea level/flooding and others in the Anthropocene epoch has been pondered by diverse thinkers such as Jedediah Purdy as well as by contemporary American female poets. According to poet Marcella Durand, “Ecological poetry . . . functions with an intense awareness of space, seeks an equality of value between all living and unliving things, explores multiple perspectives as an attempt to subvert the dominant paradigms of mono-perception, consumption and hierarchy, and utilizes powers of concentration to increase lucidity and attain a more transparent, less anthropocentric mode of existence." Brief excerpts of ecopoems referencing fluid bodies (e.g. by Ann Lauterbach, Margaret Ross, Sarah Mangold, Meredith Stricker, Jessica Reed, Rae Armantrout, Natasha Trethewey, Evelyn Hampton, Evie Shockley, Catherine Wagner and Marthe Reed) will be analyzed in accordance with William James’ and Geert Hofstede’s conception of the feminine and Durand’s (and others’) definition of ecopoetry.

In 2019 I went, together with my husband, on a boat cruise around the world, to celebrate the end of my cancer treatment which had lasted several years and which was both physically and emotionally traumatic.

In the Japanese spring we boarded the Sun Princess, a sibling ship of the Diamond Princess, Grand Princess, and Ruby Princess, all now famous for their part in this year's coronavirus outbreak. It was a JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) charter cruise and I was perhaps the only non-Japanese looking guest. Some guests mistook me for staff or crew, as even some crew members did. The crew were from many countries. At the top of the hierarchy were British and Australian white male captains; officers tended also to be white males. There were a German female and a Japanese female ship doctors, with the rest of the crew mainly young people from various countries especially the Philippines.

On the boat I managed to write some short poems. The following four poems are 3 short lines each; lines are two to four words long. These were published in August 2019 in Noon: Journal of the Short Poem, Issue 14 (and will be included in my forthcoming in 2020 by Isobar Books collection titled Plan B Audio). The book will include photographs by Japan based artist and author Susan Laura Sullivan. Water, in a rice paddy, is visible on the front cover as well as mountains and a bird-filled sky.
Faintness of being
The raked garden
Dying inch by inch

Falling apart
Ideas like leaking faucets
My stoma erupts

On a boat
Eating everything with chopsticks
Even my hair

Smile at the horizon
Kite aloft
Branching out to sea
I enjoyed spending a lot of time on a boat on the ocean, although it is quite true that cruise ships can cause notorious pollution and other problems.

In chapter six of a book titled Pragmatism and feminism: reweaving the social fabric by Charlene Haddock Seigfried (University of Chicago, 1996), Seigfried writes:
[William] James speaks of "a mother-sea" and a "psychic sea," that is, a sea of consciousness to which our puny, finite consciousnesses will one day return. The mother-sea "leaks-in" through the interstices of everyday life despite efforts to block it out.

James longs to return to the primal mother-sea, which he envisions as encompassing the finite, visible world of human experience, just as the atmosphere blankets and provides life-giving oxygen to the planet . . . ". . . we with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest," which "may whisper to each other with their leaves. . But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean's bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir."
Seigfried also writes:
. . . We know that rationality and science are male domains for James and that untamed nature is female. Thus, when he says that "everything here is so lawless and individualized that it is chaos come again," he is referring to both physical nature and women

. . . But although James's writings are among the least feminist of all the classical American philosophers . . . they are also arguably the most conventionally feminine. Images of fluidity and merging abound; boundaries are permeable . . .

(pp. 114-115)
I used the word "Mother Nature" in the title of this presentation — an expression I have always disliked, because I think reducing mothers to nature and women to mothers is sexist and unnatural. We women are a bit more than that. It made my fur stand up if I heard a car or a boat referred to as “she.” If we had a "Parent Nature" I think according to James as well as some famous ancient male Greek thinkers "female" might be "ocean" and "male" might be "land" because it is easier obviously for primarily land dwelling humans to understand and conquer land as opposed to the unruly mysterious feminine Other. "Every woman is a vessel" sang Patti Smith (in “Poppies,” on Radio Ethiopia, 1976). Women have birth canals, it's true. But thank the goddess we now have the word "non-binary" not to mention "gender fluid" and "they" is beginning to replace she or he (I have tended to avoid he and she in favor of she and he — why must women always be last?).

I want to talk about gender fluids today.

Feminine — ocean, unruly, untamed, dangerous, mysterious, emotional, nature, myths and old wives tales
Masculine — land, rational, orderly, rule-governed, concrete observation, facts

(according to gender-based stereotypes)
Mother Ocean
Mother Earth

Geert Hofstede, in his book titled Masculinity and femininity: the taboo dimension of national cultures (Sage, 1998) wrote (on pp. 6-7) “Masculinity stands for a society in which men are supposed to be assertive, tough, and focused on material success; women are supposed to be more modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life. The opposite pole, Femininity, stands for a society in which both (emphasis mine) men and women are supposed to be modest, tender and concerned with the quality of life”. In the data on p. 9 of his book Japan rates highest in masculinity of 53 countries, the U.S. is #15 and the Scandinavian countries are at the bottom.

In my book FLUX (published by BlazeVOX in 2013) are the following stanzas which in my own mind were written in a male voice, as I told Thomas Fink in his interview of me at Dichtung Yammer:

* * *

earn easy typing income. lather, rinse, repeat. in a contest between truth and beauty money wins every time. model AF6200 is not as good as last year's but costs more. i may be radioactive iodine. what remains after the tidal wave. go ask father nature. somebody stole my vertebrae. your browsing is history. we are scientists after all. i worry where my eyes will go next. i would like to move my hand across that continent but stop myself

* * *

tipped pelvis. hindsight is still sight except when hidden. father time divorced mother nature but not before begetting father nature whose rage is the length of a continent and deeper than the ocean. i won't be getting out much for a while. the heaven i made on earth blew to pieces. bank blowout. i asked for a blow dry not a blow job. blank and blue city. i learned nothing greater than the plumed building. there are better ways to anger people than comment on their poems. you could mention their hair for instance

* * *
[ . . . ]we will rename the campaign operation poophole. the doctor's scalpel is nice and points to future climate change denial
It is interesting for me to revisit these lines just a few days after the 9th anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that caused the meltdowns at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant on March 11, 2011.

The 64th issue of the American literary journal Conjunctions was subtitled "Natural Causes: the Nature Issue" and published in 2015.

The beginning of the final section of a poem in it, by US poet Ann Lauterbach titled “After After Nature” (a book by Jedediah Purdy the full title of which is After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene published in 2015 by Harvard UP) ends with an admonishment few perhaps can follow (pp. 40-41):

Abstraction is invisible, it

pours through the sockets

of the hours and the

broken debris goes

out to sea—a flood of names,

old particulars—

what never was translated;

some drafts on paper—

erode the banks and the banks

rise up into the empty horizon

like nameless cartoon giants.

Be not afraid.
In the same issue is a poem titled “Visiting Nanjing” by Margaret Ross (a poet who teaches at Yale); the following is an excerpt from her poem section (on p. 133) titled "Meat of the Matter" where “Mother Ocean” is yet a bride:
. . . Government
handouts feed the living willing
to be shipped offshore.

From city-sponsored vessels
passengers throw ashes at the bride
the ocean is and back on land

it's beachgoers in "facekinis," lycra
ski masks to preserve their skin
so from a boat coming in

you'd think the sand
was mobbed with robbers
who suddenly lay down midheist.

Also in the issue is a poem by Meredith Stricker titled “Anemochore” which (on p. 256) ends:
heading out into the Open with ten words from John Cage as compass
                "method" "structure" "intention"
"discipline" "notation" "interpenetration" "indeterminacy"
                "imitation" "devotion" "circumstance"
forms of biomimicry as urban tide pools and structures reinvent and
                breathe collapse then compost ourselves

I am willing

it is "just a mess" — beauty
The words by Cage could be described as “masculine” but the words by Stricker “feminine.”

Jessica Reed's poem titled “Matter, Resistance” (p. 259), ends as follows:

One lemon on a countertop, its atoms
teeming with trembling parts. But not

a single photon, a light ray moving
in one direction. Blocks, swimming

and viscous. Study a still life and be still.
We are inside. We swim in it. Life

amasses. It is assembly. Peer inside an object
to its clearest skeleton, dripping

waxy through unempty space. Your
body is wax. You are empty. Your space is full.
As does Reed’s, the poem “Fishmaker” by Evelyn Hampton (p. 119) signals trouble in paradise:
I went to the hatch and looked down at the river.
So long, easy sleep. Good-bye, happiness.
River? No. That mass of cracks was not what a river was.

The speaker in Sarah Mangold’s “Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners” is overwhelmed in a manner which cannot be resolved (pp. 284-5):

                It may be true that landscape painting tends
                to naturalize ideology                Taking my eye off
                the water cask and fixing it on the scenery
                where I meant it to be                Saying firmly in pencil
                in margins                "Help I am drowning"

And later (on p. 285):
This sounds discouraging to a person whose
occupation necessitates going about
considerably in boats                My continual
desire for hairpins and other pins                 My
intolerable habit of getting into water
An anthology of ecopoetry by African American poets titled Black Nature: four centuries of African American Nature Poetry was published in 2009 (Univ. of Georgia Press).

In this poem by Evie Shockley (p. 33), from her “31 words * prose poems”, nature is not only an object for the sake of art:
highly visual rural winter image seeks lyric poem (14-30 lines) for mutual enrichment and long-term relationship. image offers frost-bitten river and fog-covered fields where snow seems to rise towards its origins.
Natasha Trethewey's poem titled “Liturgy for the Mississippi Gulf Coast” includes the following lines (p. 201):
To the security guard staring at the Gulf
thinking of bodies washed away from the coast, plugging her ears
against the bells and sirens — sound of alarm — the gaming floor
on the Coast
[ . . . ]
To the woman dreaming of returning to the Coast, thinking of water rising,
her daughter's grave, my mother's grave — underwater — on the Coast;

This poem reminds me of work which I recently reviewed, from a new book titled Drowning in the Floating World by American poet Meg Eden which depicts, especially, the 3/11 disaster; the book opens with "a beach/covered in whales" and "fifty bodies, like tea leaves" (p. 3) and then "people floated, crying/for help" (p. 5).; subsequently "Try to remember friends' names, & what/they looked like before they were found" (p. 6). (This review is forthcoming in the American disability poetics journal Wordgathering.)

An anthology titled The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastorals (Ahsahta Press) came out in 2012. The power of the sea is depicted at the end of a poem titled “Long Green” by Rae Armantrout (on p. 153):
All night
the sea coughs up

green strands,

cold boluses,

and swallows them
back in
In the same book the middle of a poem titled "Mercury Vectors: a Romance" by Catherine Wagner (p. 42) contains these lines depicting human destruction of the environment:
Scum interlards
the pastoral interval:
Proctor&Gambol[sic] scum

in the forest by the creek?

The foam's probably natural.
Rot acts as surfactant.

Bubbles form atop the dead

in turbulent water.
1% of river foam is dead/pollute. The rest is air.
Also in the same volume is the 2nd stanza of 4 of a poem by Marthe Reed titled "Chandeleur Sound" (p. 448):
Barrier islands braceleted in orange. Royal terns, laughing gulls slide above (oiled)
surf. Pelicans, given to loafing on shoals. Shelter dolphins, turtles: haven, refuge,
home. This: investment portfolio, what's really at stake. Residual marsh toxicity,
pompom booms mimicking widgeon-grass. A regulatory regime cut-to-fit Big Oil,
profit, thirst of our idealized machines. Fill in the blank. "No clear strategy objec-
tives" — tern estuary, soak, seat — "linked to statutory requirements." What is re-
I think what is required is for workers in both Japan and the U.S. to stop attempting to be idealized machines. I think what is required is for female-friendly, disability friendly, and LGBTQIA+ people friendly workplaces to be created. I think we need disability-friendly workplaces. I think we need more gender fluids.

I think we need more poems and fewer balance sheets. There is no balance.

I think we need more vegans. If we did not keep animals for food or as pets or use them as objects in experiments and wars or destroy animal habitats I wonder if we would have a coronavirus? Would we have SARS? AIDS? Bird flu? Mad cow disease?

It is terribly strange for me to re-read in my 2013 book FLUX, which depicted among other events 3/11, “Lehman shock” as we call it here in Japan, and Trayvon Martin’s death, the following lines:

even tho i wear my surgical mask twenty four seven. suffused with the rhetoric. a desire to be in love without there being anyone to be in love with. an online vigilante group posing a national security risk may just be a hobby. passive-aggressive disorder may stem from a specific childhood stimulus in an environment where it was not safe to express frustration or anger. mutual respect between me and the government became increasingly unlikely. why god doesn't love you back

* * *

i wanted to purchase a secular democracy but i forgot to read the fine print and ended up the head of a tobacco company. later buried at sea showering myself with old money. in the shadow of big banks. i was busy lawyering up. collective scams leveraged to the hilt hammer the poor. fake profits put desperation in the air clouded by large bonuses. we hoped for a religious apocalypse not an economic one but secret millionaires brought restless leg syndrome to the skies creating wage slaves and brand loyalty

The following poem is from my forthcoming book Plan B Audio:
Because I was always faltering. You hated smoked salmon on toast. At night the centipedes rush back and forth on the tatami. What little we remember still manages to haunt us. A lethargic response given to more rain. A semantic distinction made in both languages.

To attach significance to a word, to pin your hopes on it. Though your body will never be the same. Pain spreads from left to right creating a giant orange flame. But you read the text from top to bottom. Outside children raise their hands when crossing the street. The edge of memory is sharp, it can hurt you. A woman is like a tea bag so men must be coffee. I came to hate coffee after my radiation treatment. Only small minds discuss people.

Forgot my morning wishes. Like prayer without music. I didn't like waking up alone. What holds together the sky. A way to comprehend reality. Troops invading a country making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Like a mutilating operation. The broken conversation that was my body. Where I would live next.

Acute psychological injury. Raising awareness through educational initiatives. The culture of silence. Why there are pragmatic obstacles. This can be seen in the following extract. Words occur evenly across different texts. The purpose of this study. Of a cadaver.

A low shrieking sound. The problem was where to put everything. After another death in the family. My body doesn't fit this environment. A tree from a distance appears to be winking. My body looks strange in this lighting.

Naming is a form of blaming. Of maiming. Are you DEAF, why are you BLIND to my suffering, that is so LAME, you are disgusting, said to no one in particular.

The manner in which you forget. My body wants what it wants. Pointing to where you were yesterday.

I am focusing on his nose as he speaks. So focused on his pores that I can hardly pay attention to the words he is saying. And I like words, ordinarily. But I am hearing only about every third word because his nose is fascinating and then he asks me what I think. I try to come up with some type of reply that sounds like I've been listening intently. He keeps talking and talking. His nose grows smaller and smaller.

The child's sandal that washed up near the genkan. So tiny. So pink and so black and so plastic.

Life limps along. Things which come in handy. The sad feeling I get when I empty my colostomy bag. The walls of a house. Flooded with emotion. Curative violence. Bruised demeanor. Or scars.
I am not sure what has happened between my 2013 book and the 2020 one (the latter focuses primarily but not exclusively on disability) but the answer seems to be not much. Not much has changed except now I have two plastic bags glued to my abdomen that weren't there before, new scars, missing body parts, a swollen right leg but also new friends and an expanded perspective containing an outlook on life that includes both hoping for the impossible and accepting what is.

I’d like to close with a poem which can be found online on the Poetry Foundation website. Jennifer Bartlett is an American poet who lives with cerebral palsy. Her poem is titled from “The Hindrances of a Householder”:

Jennifer had a tendency to stop in
the street and listen to the neighbors’

problems. She was consoling to them.
Jennifer would look for people in trouble

and offer help, even though
her body was relatively weak, and

she could not carry groceries
for the old people, really.

When the young mothers had issues
they would come to Jennifer because they

knew that Jennifer also had had issues
as a young mother and would listen to them.

Now Jennifer had middle mother issues.

Everything can be illuminated by water
or most things.

The two women in the black of mourning
knelt by the river in exact tandem, and

they spoke softly.
The film, like life itself, had minimal

plot and extraordinary beauty.
The film, like life itself, was

slow and maniacal. And when
we walked the village afterwards

in search of just the right martini
I thought of the same steps I had

taken years earlier in preparation
for mourning, and I was not unhappy.

[This essay is based on a paper I presented to the Nagoya University (Japan) annual symposium on North American literature — theme “Blue Humanities: Anglo-American Literature/Culture and the Aquatic Environment” — on March 14th 2020. Due to the coronavirus it was given via FaceTime. J. J-N.]


After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene; Jedediah Purdy. Harvard University Press, 2015.

"The Ecology of Poetry"; Marcella Durand. Included in Ecolanguage Reader, Brenda Iijima (editor). Portable Press/Nightboat Books, 2010.

(retrieved April 22, 2020)

Pragmatism and feminism: reweaving the social fabric; Charlene Haddock Seigfried. The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Masculinity and femininity: the taboo dimension of national cultures; Geert Hofstede. Sage, 1998.

FLUX; Jane Joritz-Nakagawa. BlazeVOX, 2013.

(retrieved March 21, 2020)

Conjuctions:64. Natural Causes; Bradford Morrow (editor). Bard College, 2015.

Black Nature: four centuries of African American Nature Poetry; Camille T. Dungy (editor). University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Drowning in the Floating World; Meg Eden. PRESS 53, 2020.

The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastorals; Joshua Corey and G. C. Waldrep (editors). Ahsahta Press, 2012.

Plan B Audio; Jane Joritz-Nakagawa. Isobar Press, London/Tokyo, 2020 (in press).

Wordgathering, Volume 14, issue 1. A review of of Meg Eden's Drowning in the floating world by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: https://wordgathering.com/vol14/issue1/reviews/eden/
(retrieved April 22, 2020)

(retrieved March 4, 2020)

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of over a dozen books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently Poems: New and Selected (Isobar, 2018), <<terrain grammar>> (theenk Books, 2018), and, as editor, women : poetry : migration [an anthology], also with theenk (2017). Jane's newest poetry book is Plan B Audio, currently in press with Isobar.

Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.
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